Were we born to run?

Do you remember running as a child? If you’ve got kids watch them run. Unbridled joy and beautiful form in any kind of shoe. Why do so many lose this as they get older? What happened?  Currently, I’m training for my first 50 miler, the Quicksilver 50 Mile on May 8th. Tell people you’re running 50 miles and they look at you like you’re crazy. But lately, I’ve been enjoying running like I was a child again.

The unabridged audio version of Chris McDougall’s Born to Runhas only fanned the flames, filling me with conviction that I’m rediscovering what we were all meant to do. I was heading out in some brand new shoes when I got to the section which argues the heel strike advocated by Nike’s Bill Bowerman was only enabled by the cushioned shoes Nike was trying to sell, and this modified foot strike, is the source of most running injuries. Apparently, people get injured running more often now than they did in the 70s before the rise of this new foot strike and shoe type.

I was a prolific teenage runner, who used to have a natural midfoot-toe strike and who used to love just running.  About 10 years ago, I developed knee problems with a heel strike and overstriding (extending the leg straight out in front prior to impact).  Since reverting back to my natural style and spending more time barefoot, I’ve been running faster and with less injuries.  Chris McDougall tells of similar experiences.

The Vibram Five Finger shoe is the poster child for this new barefoot/natural running movement.  It’s a bizarre invention to those of us used to the modern running shoe, and certainly a conversation starter – a Vibram rubber glove for your feet.  You only have to look at the customer reviews to see how much people love these things, injuries decrease and they never want to wear heeled shoes again.  I’m going to get a pair myself to see if they address the chronic ilio-tibial band (ITB) issues I’ve been dealing with.

BTW, the book is fantastic on a number of levels and also a wonderful audio book that will make any workout fly by.  It builds to this incredible 50 mile race on the Tarahumara‘s home turf, by way of Chris’ personal story, and many wonderful side bars on legends and characters in the sport of ultrarunning like Scott Jurek, 7 time Western States 100 mile winner, and Ann Trason.  He explores nutrition and running shoes, and the amazing story of persistence hunting – a technique still practiced by a very few Kalahari bushmen, and a theory that we evolved to be able to actually consistently run antelope and other pray down via exhaustion (the key is not speed, but 3-5 hours of endurance and team work) and we evolved very specific body parts to assist with this.  In other words we were born to run.  If nothing else, I no longer feel like I’m the odd one for taking on a 50 miler.

Finding the time to Crush It!

photo courtesy of IanL

If you haven’t had the pleasure of listening to the audio version of Gray Vaynerchuk’s Crush It!, do yourself a favor.  As Gary admits, during one of his many ad libs, he dictated the book to a ghost writer anyway, so this is actually the format it was meant to be heard in.  Scrap that, you need the video-cast, to get the full “gary vee” experience (like his awesome Wine Library TV video blog).

For those not familiar, Gary is another of the social media celebrities, who helped grow his family’s wine business from $4M to $60M in 5 years, who has a ridiculous number of followers on twitter and fans on facebook. He brought passion and a raw approachability to demystifying the enjoyment of wine, which the industry sorely needed.

If you need to get pumped up about whatever it is you are passionate about doing, the audio version of this book  could get just about anybody excited.  The passion and excitement in his voice is palpable and infectious. And for most of us, finding time to listen in the car or working out is a lot easier than finding time to read.

Now this takes us to the crux of the problem – finding the time.

Unlike Ferriss’ 4 Hour Work Week, Gary is not suggesting creating a “muse” that will earn big dollars for you with minimum time investment, so you can life the life of your dreams now.  He’s actually suggesting a LOT of hard work.  Your priorities are family, health and then your passion.  Kiss the wife and kids good night and get to work 9pm-2am.  Every night. Repeat.  Don’t worry about the stats, if you’re the best in your narrowly-defined field (finding a niche small enough that you can be best in the world at it is key), and passionate about it, the rabid fans will come and stay, and, over time, you’ll be able to monetize your passion, and give up your day job.  We’re not talking crazy wealth here, just $50-100K which is good enough for a decent life, and at least your spending your waking hours doing something you give a damn about.

The book has a decent amount of tactical advice on how to do all of this, from getting a URL to setting up a blog site, to creating great content.  Where all the work comes is in engaging with the audience.  This is of course where most of us fall down.  We get obsessed with the content and forget about building the community.  They won’t appear all by themselves, you have to make them want to come, again and again.  If you want to understand the degree of this dedication, he still answers every tweet or email, despite the staggering volume he receives..  I tried this and its true.  Less than 24 hours after tweeting props about the audiobook, he @ replied back with a thank you.  Amazing.

After hearing the book, I was naturally pumped to try this out.  And that’s when it dawns on you.  You have got to want this more than anything else to make it happen.  You need the chutzpah and the hustle to self-promote.  Endlessly. I can handle a few late nights in a row, but then I run out of gas.  And I love spending time with my family.  And I have an awesome day job.  So now, I want to combine Seth’s Linchpin with Gary’s Crush It! and make this happen on my day job.  Because that’s near and present.  And that way it doesn’t have to be 9pm-2am every night.

My lizard brain wants me to stop…

But I must ship this before the publication date. Even if its not perfect.

A mother and daughter in the row in front of me start arguing over something like who paid for the DIRECTV. The argument escalates into a rehash of an apparently longstanding feud with lots of name-calling and cussing. They eventually settle back into an episode of “Keeping up with the Kalashnikovs” or whatever they call it – life imitating art I suppose. The girl next to me is whining incessantly on the phone about some injustice her father has apparently inflicted upon her. None of the flight crew is doing anything more than trying to survive this flight. I picture them all with lizard heads poking out from their shirts and retreat back to my advance copy of Linchpin, Seth Godin’s latest, desperately hoping for a little art or the opportunity of a gift in the day.

The Ritz-Carlton in Ft. Lauderdale comes to the rescue with an artful greeting (the magic is achieved with headsets relaying the guest’s name to the check-in desk) followed by the unnecessary but delightful step of helping me find my room, confirming that it is ok, and asking about the purpose of my stay. I hesitated at the conclusion (time for the tip), as Seth suggests that money cheapens the gift, but the protocol is pretty clear on tipping (unlikely many other aspects of American tipping which I continue to find baffling and embarrassing) and followed the easy path of convention. Seth suggests adding a why it was great through a “Thank you and …” construction – I guess I’ll need more practice on that one.

I love the central idea behind this book and the logic of the call-to-action. Your choice:

  • Take the apparently risky and courageous path of becoming an indispensable human, and in the meantime discover meaning and lifelong employment, or
  • Follow the indoctrination of many years of society and education and remain a faceless cog in the machine, increasingly dispensable, and at the mercy of your employer and the forces of globalization

If you accept the hypothesis that we all have this choice (and Seth argues that regardless of nature or nurture that we all have genius within us), or even that it’s better to die trying than not, it’s pretty obvious which is actually the less risky path.

Much like Dan Pink’s wonderful A Whole New Mind, which I reviewed previously, Godin passionately argues that times have changed, and a new approach is the key to success. The good news is the new approach should make you not only more successful but happier and wealthier at the same time. Bring it on!

In the last few weeks, I’ve reflected on my life and current work. There is no doubt that when I’ve put in that extra effort at work or home it’s typically yielded noticeably better outcomes, and been warmly acknowledged by the recipients, which has given back to me a sense of fulfillment far in excess of that extra effort. In the same few weeks, by actively pursuing ways to go above and beyond I’ve significantly elevated my value in what becomes a marvelous positive feedback loop – do something unexpected and great, be acknowledged, feel great, create and give more art. This concept is not new, but the imperative for action is arguably stronger than ever.

The table of contents is brilliantly presented as an executive summary with sentences describing the key ideas under each chapter title. Godin proposes that between management and workers (the cogs in the machine) there is room for a new class of indispensable workers – the linchpins. Like Ayn Rand’s heroes but more forgiving in the sense that linchpins work with the world as it is, rather than running off to form their own utopia. The book is peppered with Seth’s trademark pithy one-liners, clever observations, arguments and definitions (for example “Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient“), and fabulous quotes such as this one from artist Hugh MacLeod: “The web has made kicking ass easier to achieve, and mediocrity harder to sustain. Mediocrity now howls in protest.” Best of all are the hand-drawn charts. and Venn diagrams like the one at left from page 101.

If you’re inspired to try to become a linchpin (and most of the readers will be), there are a few tips and guidelines but importantly no map to enlightenment. Everyone’s destination and path will be different and ever-changing. The resistance to this life of art and gift giving will be driven by the lizard brain, the primitive bits called the amygdala that “apparently takes over whenever you are angry, afraid, aroused, hungry or in search of revenge”. One key tactic is to remember that artists ship. If you procrastinate and never publish your work, you can’t succeed. With that in mind, I better stop here and press the button.

Seth, thank you for this little gem of a book – you are a constant source of wisdom and inspiration.

Dear readers, good luck out there. May you all choose wisely.

The best laid plans…

this month's cover

Happy New Year everyone! Sorry to have been out of touch – lots and lots of work in the day job, and then we kicked off the year with a family circuit of the over-hyped swine flu (comes out of nowhere, knocks you flat, then vanishes without warning – maybe they should have called it surprise flu…)

I realized today that many of us start a new year (or even more portentous) a new decade with big plans and resolutions only to see many fall by the wayside. This should in no way be discouraging. Life and work are full of unexpected twists and turns. (Imagine how dull it would be if we knew what was going to happen.) It’s how we respond that matters.

You may remember I wrote recently with much pride about finishing an ultra giving my surefire tips for success with minimal training. I was lucky – about the only thing that didn’t go my way was some salty watermelon (it almost went the wrong way).

For Christmas, my generous and lovely wife (perhaps unwisely?) bought me a subscription to “Ultrarunning” a mag for the hardcore crazies full of 50k, 50 mile, 100 miles and more race reports.  One of the articles (those mavericks, they take pride in keeping content offline) gave advice to newbies, and the most important point was something (and most likely many things) will go wrong, it’s how you respond that determines how you finish.  Various body parts will fail, you’ll get nauseous, your gear will fall apart, your support crew will get lost…  Like everything else in life, you choose if you get pissed off, and become captive to the negative reaction, or accept it and move on, deciding how best to move forward with the newly understood reality.

On a lovely morning run at  Windy Hill this morning, I finally caught up with the audio edition of Economist Christmas special and was struck by this quote on the human condition: “Ms Neiman asks people to reject the false choice between Utopia and degeneracy. Moral progress, she writes, is neither guaranteed nor is it hopeless. Instead, it is up to us.”  In other words, it is imperative that we keep trying to get better yet we should never expect to reach a destination of perfection.  So write down those resolutions, give it an honest effort and don’t beat yourself up if life gets in the way.  Now, back to work.  Big launch day tomorrow.

AT&T waves the white flag at the mobile Internet buffet

Hope you’re all enjoying the excesses of the holiday season.  AT&T appears to be suffering.  Imagine deciding to stop selling your hottest product in your second largest target market. The location with the presumably second highest concentration of bloggers and influencers after San Francisco. Apple must have been livid.

Courtest U.S. Naval Historical Center

The recent decision by AT&T to stop selling iPhones online to people with a NYC zip code was not officially promoted or explained.  An online customer service rep reportedly explained “New York City is not ready for the iPhone.” If AT&T is lucky, the quick reversal of this heinous error may prevent its complete nullification of the millions spent on national advertising campaigns for their allegedly superior 3G network.

You can pummel people over the head with old school marketing, but if you stop selling the phone, no matter what the excuse, especially after your CTO admits how challenging its been and your CEO starts talking about charging based on data use, you’ve basically proven your network can’t keep up with demand.

If its really the case that they can’t keep up with surging demand, then all carriers and users are in for hell as the mainstream discovers the joy of a mobile all-you-can-eat Internet buffet.  Enjoy the streaming video while you can 🙂

How I ran an Ultra on 3 days/week with bad knees

Me, happily finishing the 2009 Quad Dipsea

Health and wellness are key components of a rich life.  You only have to lose them for a day to realize how precious they are.

On the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, I successfully finished the Quad Dipsea (roughly 29 miles and 9300 vertical feet of climbing) in 5 1/2 hours placing me at 29th out of a field of 250.  The feeling of joy and sense of accomplishment as I crested the final hill and knew I was going to finish almost brought tears to my eyes and will be with me for a long time.  An unlike a road marathon, I was walking well the next day, and headed out for a little trot on Monday to stretch out the legs.

This is the first ultra I’ve run since Way Too Cool 50k in 2003 and I wanted to share a few tips on how I pulled this off with a 12 week training program including only 3 cardio training sessions per week.  For those of us who want to take on a significant athletic challenge but have families and careers, I thought it’d be helpful to know you can do it.

For the last 10 years, I’ve been nursing temperamental knees, ankles, plantar fascitis, achilles tendons and hamstrings, yet somehow managed to avoid surgery or stopping running altogether, so several of the tips pertain to preventative maintenance which becomes more important as our bodies age and tighten.

1. Periodize Your Training

The human body gets stronger through a process of increased intensity followed by rest.  This is why they don’t climb Everest in one shot, but go up and down between the base camps getting used to progressively higher altitudes.  What this means for a training program is don’t build from your base to the max in a continuous line, but add a little, maintain, and then back off, before building again.

My 12 week training plan for the 2009 Quad Dipsea

For a 12 week training period this would mean breaking it up into 3 x 4 week periods each containing 2 Medium, 1 Hard, and 1 Easy week.  You can see my training plan on the left, and read an explanation of the key components in following sections.  The great benefit of this is you can typically take it really easy in the Easy week following a Hard week if you push it too hard and some body part gets aggravated (quite likely on an accelerated training program like this).   Also, its much easier on the mind to break down the challenge of the 12 weeks as 3 manageable chunks each of 4 weeks.

2. Long Runs are Top Priority

Time Commit: Build from 2.5 to 5 hours per week.

There are a number of reasons for prioritizing long runs:

  • If you can finish a long run at 2/3 – 3/4 of your ultra (I built up to 21 miles  for a 29 mile ultra), you can finish your ultra.  Long runs give you confidence.
  • Once you start going over 2 1/2 hours, you use up all the carbohydrate (glycogen) stores in your body and the body starts to turn fat into energy.  This is typically associated with “hitting the wall” in a marathon (the point in time at which  your body turns to fat as a fuel source). You’ll need to train yourself to keep running when you reach this point to successfully run an ultra.
  • You can practice using different nutrition and pieces of equipment to find what works.  What are you going to eat and drink, when to provide rehydration and energy without causing nausea or cramping?  How are you going to carry all this stuff ?    Do you need to lubricate certain areas to prevent chafing?  What socks and shoes won’t cause blisters?

I highly recommend training on terrain as similar as possible to the ultra, at race pace (more on this later).  Find some beautiful trails close to home that you can enjoy running on.  After long runs, take a 10-15 minute ice bath (I’ve had good success with just cold water), very unpleasant on entry, but brilliant for recovery.

This is the most intensive time sink on the weekends, so start as early as possible to minimize the impact on family time, negotiate in advance with any significant others for the time, and find some interesting podcasts to listen too (I’ve enjoyed learning French with Coffee Break French, listening to Free by Chris Anderson and Triibes by Seth Godin (both free downloads), TED talks, iinovate, and the Economist).

3. Interval Workouts with Stairs & Hills are 2nd Priority

Time Commit: Build from 1.5 hours per week.

If you’re doing an ultra with a lot of climbing, stair climbing sessions are a necessary evil.  My “favorite” 1 hour workout combined 20 minutes of stair climbing with approx 25 minutes of walking at 4mph on a 15% slope, finishing with a couple of miles at a fast clip.  Fast walking uphill when tired is an extremely useful skill in ultras as is getting used to the transition from walking to running when you crest a hill.  If you substitute elliptical or bike for the run at the end, you have a low impact workout.

4. Mid-week Run and other Cardio are 3rd Priority

Time Commit: Build from 1 – 2 hours per week.

Don’t add miles for the sake of it.  But a second run is good conditioning for the legs (at the end of the day the best training for running is running).  If cardiovascular endurance is your main challenge and the musculature is strong, add more runs.  If  you’re worried about injuries, use elliptical or bike to add endurance.   The bike is great at the gym because it’s so easy to read while you’re on it (use a HR monitor until you know what level to ride at), and out on the roads for building quad strength climbing hills.

5. Use Trail Races to Test Race Pace and Nutrition and Build Endurance

Time Commit: 3-5.5 hours once per month

There’s nothing quite like an organized run to get the competitive juices flowing.  I’m a big fan of the runs put on by Pacific Trails.  They’ve found the most fabulous scenic and hilly trails in the Bay Area, they have about 25 events per year, each one offering distances from 10k to 50k they’re great hosts and very well organized with clearly marked trails and well-stocked aid stations.  And they know the ultra community so well, so you can learn anything you need to.

One of the key things to do in races is to learn how hard you can go without blowing up.  Its good to get on the wrong side of the line a few times for the conditioning effect and reminder of how humbling that can be.

The other key component is getting your nutrition right because its under stress that things start coming undone – especially dehydration, cramps and nausea.  I nearly blew the Quad via nausea by taking watermelon with salt at the first Stinson Beach turnaround because they had no potatoes.  So use the trail races – about 1/month to work out what works (and, more importantly, what doesn’t).

6. Use Yoga to Build Core and Flexibility

Time Commit: 2.5-3 hours per week

Yoga has been the big find for me this year.  It provides great core strengthening, balance and flexibility improvements.  I’m particularly inflexible and yoga has offset the compression of running to keep my iliotibial (IT) band stretched enough to not bother my kneee. Twice a week of Vinyasa or other flow-based practice seems to do the trick.  And learning how to be grateful and at peace with yourself while practicing a little flow is good for your happiness as well 🙂

7. Roll, Stretch, Strengthen, Ice, Repeat

Time Commit: 30 mins in front of the tv, 3 times per week

I’ve got to believe most people have a long list of items to watch on their Tivo/DVR.  So its just something productive to do when you’d otherwise be completely immobile on the couch.  Using a foam roller will really help to break down scar tissue forming on your legs. Roll until you find a sore spot, hold for 20 seconds, roll to the next spot.  Then stretch out problem areas – nice long gentle stretches of up to 2 minutes duration without bouncing (believe it or not, stretching improves through relaxing, not forcing the muscles).  If you’ve got a few strengthening exercises (squats, 1-legged squats, leg raises, crab walks, etc) from your physical therapist or chiropractor now is the time to do them.   A few sit-ups, planks, crunches, and  back extensions are good if you’re not doing any yoga.  Then strap an ice pack on to the tender areas (in my case, knees) for 10-15 minutes.  You should ideally roll and stretch before exercising. 

8. On Race Day, Back off  the Pace, Have More Fun and Finish Quicker

Time Commit: 5.5-9 hours, Memories: Priceless

This is the most critical piece of advice I can give.  From bitter experience, if you go out too hard, you’ll most likely blow up.  Back off, enjoy the beautiful scenery and if you feel good later, pick up the pace.  If I go out too hard, (typically characterized by getting anaerobic on the first couple of hills) I typically get severe cramping after 2.5 hours, no matter how many salt tablets and/or water I take or stretches I do.  If I back off 5-10%, the cramps don’t happen.  In the Quad I ran the Double in 2:37 vs. my personal best of 2:27.  Those 10 minutes made all the difference in the world.  I had to consciously keep reminding myself to slow down on that first leg – coming into Stinson Beach the first time I just felt fantastic.

I hope this experience will provide some guidance and inspiration for others.  You really can make this happen off a pretty small base (say 3 days of cardio a week with an 8 mile long run) even with less than perfect knees.

A little positive psychology to be thankful for

Holland enjoying the waves in Far North Queensland

As Seth said yesterday, it’s the only holiday that really matters.  I sometimes have to pinch myself to remember the good fortune – our health, families, friends, jobs, house, food, the incredible climate and beauty of the bay area.  Especially given that so many others have had such a challenging year, I feel blessed to have had such a good one.  Every year we do calendars and cards, using a service like shutterfly, and it was such a treat to go back over the amazing photos this year looking for the best ones.  The digital SLR has not only increased the number of pictures 4-5X, but also hugely improved the quality, and pictures of our daughter’s complete and utter joy playing on the beaches in Far North Queensland will grace our cards this year.  (BTW, if you never searched online for coupons, it’s totally worth it.  Shutterfly wanted $25 for shipping – a Gogle search for “shutterfly coupons”reduced that to zero in under a minute).

Personal highlights of the year in rough chronological order include: the alt-MBA, training our new lab puppy, finishing the back garden, switching jobs, the first trip to Oz with Holland, finally starting this blog, discovering yoga, getting serious about trail running again, and several iPhone apps (see previous reviews of balloonimals and stitcher).

Henry reminded me of the ability to download TED podcasts which has filled long training runs with amazing and inspiring tales from people have made a career out of following their passions like Amy Tan, Al Gore, Dave Eggers, Katherin Fulton, John Hodgman, Brian Cox and Brian Greene.

One of my favorites, in tune with the holiday was Martin Seligman, on positive psychology.  The video is embedded below – it outlines the three components of happiness: pleasure, flow and meaning. The good news is you don’t have to be born with a genetic predisposition to have it, 50% of pleasure comes from surrounding yourself with friends and family, and success at flow and meaning will provide much more lasting happiness than pleasure alone.  Check it out – a great intro to the field, and maybe it’ll set you up for a 2010 to be thankful for 🙂

Less is More: Cleaning Up Packaging For Kids

Been a busy couple of weeks, so I’m going to leave the deep and meaningful for a quick observation on packaging for kids. In brief, less is more: costs less, cause less mess, makes customers happier.

Yogurt tubes are a great idea – convenient packaging for on-the-go snacks for kids.  Why do they fill them up so much?

yogurt1

Another full tube

yogurt2

Another messy outcome

When you tear off the top, you invariably get large globs of yogurt in your lap and on your fingers.  Can reduce a kid to tears.  If you’re opening the tube (often requires too much dexterity and strength too open for kids under 4) you get covered.  Particularly annoying if driving and defeats the purpose of convenient packaging.  I ‘m going to write a letter to Horizon and Stonyfield today to suggest they increase the size of the package or put less in them.  Either would be fine with me.  Fill to bursting is not a good solution.  Could cost them less in the long run, and result in cleaner, happier customers.  Isn’t that a win-win?

clifshotenergygel

A smarter design retains torn off top

Be nice if they copied the idea from Clif Shot Energy Gels and made the tearing a little easier and had a strip to retain the torn off piece (see phot0).  But let’s just start with the level of fill.

 

 

 

 

Same goes for portable juice boxes.  Check out this video.  Again, too much fluid is the culprit.  They might as well call these thing juice pistols.  Insert straw, give to child. Child grabs with hands that are still learning how to grip at the appropriate level of force, juice goes all over their outfit, they cry, and you have to put on a new outfit and start again.  In the video they’re flogging a non-squeezable holder to put the juice box into.  That’s one way to solve the problem, but doesn’t address the cause.  Might be better to put a 1-way valve on the container that only opens when they suck on it.  Would make serving easier, as pulling off the straw and unwrapping it adds time and effort.  When you’re dealing with kids, every second counts.   Guess that’s going to take some more letters.

Finally, the ultimate evil – blister packs.  Is shop lifting so bad that we all have to endure these insanely strong and sharp packages?  I think there’s beenso much passion here for so long from so many (see the comments on this blog), that that things might actually be starting to move in the right direction.   Obviously, less would be more here as well.

MBTI: Useful or Just Interesting?

IntuitionBySandyMcMullen

Intuition by Sandy McMullen

I’m fortunate to work with a very smart team. One of them has had a lot of experience and training with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and led a session at a recent offsite.  (If you’re not familiar with MBTI, there’s a good description on Wikipedia, but essentially a series of questions are used to diagnose a preference for Introversion or Extroversion, Intuition or Sensing, Thinking or Feeling, and Judging or Perception.  This test gives each individual one of 16 types, such as ENTJ, made up of all combinations of the 4 pairs of opposites.)  It’s all very clever and fascinating, and remarkably popular, but I’m constantly struck by its complexity and the question: What can you actually do with it?

You may not be aware that a score on one of the four axes simply indicates the clarity of preference, not ability.  It also is not a score of the strength of the preference (I interpret this as: not how much you prefer introversion for example, but how reliable the prediction is likely to be accurate that you are actually an introvert).  On the T-F dichotomy the test indicates (most times) that I have a slight preference for F.  Having low clarity can be due to cultural, social, family, or other reasons.  My colleague has explained that if someone scores an even split, e.g. 12 for T, 12 for F, then the tie is broken in the opposite direction of the governing societal bias.  In America this means ties are broken in the direction of I, N, F or P.  So given that MBTI doesn’t predict preference or ability, just because you score I, doesn’t mean you can’t either be a brilliant presenter (once of my B-school’s favorite lecturers fell into this camp) and/or enjoying being in a crowd.  Wikipedia puts it bluntly “Someone reporting a high score for extraversion over introversion cannot be correctly described as more extraverted: they simply have a clear preference.” Hence my question, what should I actually do with this?

I’ve gone through MBTI testing and workshops about 5 times in the last 11 years.  I’ve never seen anyone do anything useful with it.  I’ve have seen it create fear and doubt in the participants, wondering what it will be actually used for.  The workshops have typically been lively affairs, as people enjoy typecasting their colleagues and chuckle nervously as their intimate inner workings are potentially revealed.  There are labels applied to each of the 16 types such as Author (INFJ) or Field Marshall (ENTJ)  that people latch onto (as they are much easier to remember, and create a potential story).  The presenter typically throws up a grid of the 16 types with the team’s names in each of the boxes and people not sagely and ruminate on the potential implications.  By the next day, every participant has forgotten at least their colleagues’ types, and perhaps even their own, can’t remember the difference between everything except I and E, and there are no ongoing action items.  Is this symptomatic of a weakness with how MBTI is taught or the underlying methodology or both?

Circling back to the key question: if it doesn’t indicate strength of preference or ability what do you do with it?   Our current team has too many ENTJ’s and ENTP’s and only 1 person with a dominant S (our only female consultant).  I’m sure this means we have too many white upper-middle class males on the team, but I didn’t need a MBTI test to tell me we lack diversity.  We can’t use the MBTI for hiring, so we need another tool to decide what we are looking for to fill in these blind spots.  Perhaps I should ask the Meebo team (at Failcon they spoke about their explicit policy to hire those not like them.)  As I mentioned in that post, my experience at RSM with highly diverse teams was mixed – I’m not sure how you get the optimal amount of dissonance to drive creativity and fill blind spots yet still play nice together.

I was intrigued by the idea that in times of stress MBTI could be used to predict what behavior one would revert too.  If you knew a colleague’s type and their likely behavior under stress you could potentially develop the capability to detect they were stressed and a method for addressing it.  That does mean you have to know them pretty well, but its certainly possible.  I’ve actually found the best resource for dealing for stressful situations is outlined Crucial Conversations.  In this brilliant book, the authors describe how, when people get stressed, the amygdala section of the brain (the primitive “fight or flight” instinct governor) kicks in resulting in emotional and dangerous communication in which people invariably say things in ways they ultimately regret, typically escalating rather than resolving situations.  We’ve all experienced this in our professional and personal lives.  Some of us let it all out, and some run away or shut down.  Neither of these approaches is very effective.  Crucial Conversations provides some practical tools for detecting these situations as they occur, and then helping whoever is no-longer in a safe place (yourself or the other party) get back there by searching for and stating common objectives and using these to guide the conversation back to a productive place.  I’ve found it to be tremendously helpful both at work and home, but it does take practice.

The most useful workshop I ever went to on personality typing was led by a sales guy.   We all love to typecast salespeople as ADD, and maybe that characteristic (plus being a sales guy) resulted in his promotion of a simple and effective set of tools.   After you meet someone in a sales situation, you have to rapidly decide how best to communicate with them.  The best way to do this is to meet them on their side of the differences.  In other words, be more like them, and you’ll get along better.  The well-known aspects of this include searching for areas of commonality (a sporting interest, kids, people you’ve known, locations you’ve lived in) and echoing physical position.  You’ve probably met someone who likes to talk before getting down to business and others who are the opposite.  In this workshop, we learnt how to read those first responses to opening questions (expansive vs. short) to gauge when to start talking shop.  My takeaway is that in the vast majority of interactions you can’t whip out the MBTI test, you’ve got to make a snap assessment based on a few indicators and go with that.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that people typically tend to prefer to either work collaboratively: thinking aloud, in public and on a whiteboard or projector, or to work privately and use meetings for review cycles.  This can be hard to read, but when someone is quiet or getting uncomfortable in a group session its usually an indicator of the latter.  Likewise understanding whether people prefer numbers and factual evidence to anecdotes and stories is hard to read, but typically comes from reading the non-verbal communication – are they nodding heads or frowning, arms crossed or even not paying attention.  Of course there could be some other personal or work crisis weighing on their mind, but at least these are indicators worth investigating directly.

Apologies to the legions of MBTI fans out there, but my conclusion is that MBTI is great for amateur Jungians and psychiatrists, but too complex and inconclusive for the rest of us.  It may have some nuggets in it, and with this much time invested, I’d love to know what they are.  What would be great is tools for:

  • Understanding rapidly the key dimensions that affect how we should interact and work with others,
  • How to deal with situations when emotions get out of control (like Crucial Conversations)
  • Indicating true strength of preference and ability (to help put people in the right jobs)

I’d really like to hear from anyone who has experience with tools that attempt to measure strength of preference and strength of ability,  or that can be used to help in difficult conversations.

Exercising A Whole New Mind: Meaning

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photo courtesy of Fabio Marim

Meaning is the last of Dan Pink’s six senses for the Conceptual Age.  Pink has to walk a tightrope here between spirituality and organized religion.  For many of us, as we age and have kids, the “why are we here?” question looms larger.  And surprise, surprise, if employees feel like their work is meaningful it becomes more rewarding and they become more productive.

I was surprised to see Labyrinths covered.  My mum, proving again how prescient she can be,  got into them about 5 years ago, and I had no idea what the appeal was.  She even launched a directory to Australian labyrinths. Don’t confuse them with mazes.  Mazes offer one right direction and many wrong ones and the goal is to get out.  Labyrinths are all about the journey: you walk in a spiral and reflect.

This important topic includes some really good exercises:

  • Say Thanks: being grateful increases contentment and happiness.  David Freudberg has covered this on HumanKind.  Don’t just save it up for Thanksgiving.  I’ve tried to think of one thing to be grateful for once-a-day for the last 3 months and it is definitely rewarding to do this.  I like the idea of a birthday list – for every year write down one new thing to be grateful for.
  • Dedicate Your Work: this is a beautiful and simple idea.  If you’re doing something that matters (say a presentation),  make a quiet, genuine dedication to someone that matters to you.
  • 20-10 Test: Jim Collins suggests you ask yourself two questions: If you had $20 million in the bank, OR only 10 years to live, would you be doing what you’re doing now.  I like the time-frame he uses because the die tomorrow would suggest much more radical action that might not be warranted – 10 years is actually plenty of time to do some interesting things, but no so long as to waste another year.
  • Picture Yourself At Ninety: What will your life be like?  What will you have done?  Who will your friends be?  Stephen Covey talked about Leaving a Legacy and thinking about how would you be remembered.  Like the 20:10 test this can help provide focus and motivation on what you should be doing now.
  • Use AND to fix the BUTs: “I’d like to read more, but I can’t find the time” is solved with the addition of “So, I need to get books on tape so I can listen on the go and in the gym”.  Think of all the things you want to be doing, but have a potted excuse for not doing.  Then think of something concrete you can do to make them happen.
  • Take a Sabbath: Check out of email and news for a day per week.  A good way to recharge.  Love him or hate him, Tim Ferriss’ media holiday is actually pretty relaxing – no news for a week.  (Just got completely distracted because the second Google suggestion after Tim Ferriss is Tim Ferriss scam!  This led me too Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist.  I’m going to have to subscribe (and now Inc. has her listed one of top 19 blogs to read) – authentic writing and confirmed many niggles in my head about Mr Ferriss –  a few nuggets of truth amplified in a story and sold as hope.) I had a really great chat, with a buddy on a run, about how the interesting news is the indicators of trends and analysis of trends, not random events like the Balloon Boy or yet another bombing in a country ending in -stan.  On that topic, it’s interesting how The Daily Show is actually a better source of news and news analysis than any of the mainstream news shows.  This sidebar really needs a full post.
  • Check Your Time:  This is revealing and motivating. Keep track of everything you do.  I’ve done this in 1/2 hour blocks for about a month now.  You discover how much time you’re wasting and if you know you have to record that 1/2 hour’s activities at the end of it, it tends to get you back on track.  In case it’s not obvious, you’ll want to turn this off on non-working days, unless you’re trying to make best use of your leisure time or understand how you are using it.

Hopefully this review of the six senses was helpful.  Mr. Pink includes a brief afterword to inspire readers to engage their right brain now in the “age of art and heart”. What exercises will you try?  Could you make your life and work a little richer?